Why people practitioners need to take tech seriously, and what they can do about it

By Louisa Baczor, Independent Research Consultant.

The current wave of tech-driven change known as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is blurring the divide between the human and digital worlds. In the workplace, this is opening opportunities for new types of jobs and enhancing the quality of people’s working lives in many ways.

Our People and machines research with employers revealed a general view that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are making jobs more skilled and interesting, giving employees more autonomy and control over their work, and helping to strengthen job security. This is a refreshing perspective in contrast to the doom-filled view that robots are taking over most jobs and removing workers’ bargaining power. But the impact of new workplace technologies on job quality has not necessarily been fully understood or taken into account by employers, which risks negative outcomes for the business and its workforce. Our previous research in this area found that many organisations are failing to embed technology strategies that integrate the people perspective.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated organisations’ need to optimise the use of new technology and enable people to work with it productively. The time to pause and reflect during lockdown has raised questions about how ‘good’ work really is for us, and how this has changed as we’ve adjusted to new norms such as working from home.  The CIPD’s latest research, put the worker perspective centre stage to help us understand how people strategies can enhance the employee experience of using technology, and drive performance benefits. Comparing the findings with our previous employer survey, we see some discrepancies in the perceived impact of emerging technology on working lives:

  • Two-fifths (41%) of employers said that those most affected by new technologies had received pay rises, while only a quarter (24%) of employees say that their pay had increased as a result of technology change.
  • 44% of employers believed the main jobs affected by AI and automation had become more secure, while only 15% of employees feel more secure in their jobs.
  • Two-fifths (41%) of employers that have introduced AI and automation said it gives employees more control over working hours, compared with around one in five (22%) employees reporting this.

The data from both our employer and employee reports suggests that, overall, increased use of workplace technology is influencing job quality in more positive than negative ways. However, the picture is mixed and any gaps in the perceived impact could act as a barrier to organisations getting the most out of technology. This points to a critical role for people professionals to play in ensuring that decisions about investment in tech take a holistic view of the potential impact on the workforce as well as the business.

Here are three key recommendations for people practitioners to support successful uptake of technology:

  • Evaluate contextual factors that could hinder tech-driven change, and design transformation programmes that align with the broader strategy and culture.
  • Provide multiple and diverse mechanisms for workers to have a voice on the use of technology. The ability to raise concerns, input suggestions and be involved in decisions can foster employee engagement, wellbeing and innovation.
  • Train line managers to help individuals manage their workload and build effective collaboration while working remotely.

The CIPD has identified technology as one of its key streams of work. To share your thoughts on how technology and digital transformation are driving change in your organisation, join the CIPD’s very first virtual Hackathon from 10-12 August, where we’ll be exploring the impact of technology – and other trends – on work and working lives.

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